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My husband is not a man who is prone to overreaction. Having spent 27 years in the U.S. military (and 30 years with me!), he is generally calm and easy-going, taking many of the things that bother me in stride. And he’s funny – one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are often able to find the comedy in even the most difficult situations. Which is why I was surprised when he woke me up at 12:04 a.m. on Wednesday and, looking at me with absolutely no humor in his eyes, asked me if I thought we are now living in the end times.
Four hours later when I heard a noise and found my 17 year-old daughter sitting on the couch in the dark, morosely eating cereal from the box, she asked me a similar question, “What are we supposed to do now Mom? All of things we believe- I thought most other people believed them too. What are we supposed to do now?
The people of Thessalonica wondered the same thing. In fact, they obsessed about it. In last week’s reading from the evangelist’s letter to the Thessalonians, which we didn’t hear because we read the scriptures appointed for All Saint’s Day instead, the people wanted to know when Jesus was coming back. They believed that they had waited -and suffered- long enough. The author’s response was not the good news they were hoping for. “Let no one deceive you,” he wrote, “for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” In other words, their suffering was not over – and, based on how people have characterized each other as a result of this election – neither is ours.
This is not the answer we want to hear either, not in this week when so many people are in pain and despair – when we are struggling to find hope in the face of an uncertain and frightening future – when we are confused by the feelings of people we thought we knew – people we love. And, like my husband and my daughter, we all have questions – not only about what will happen to our country, but also about what did happen – about how we have understood so little about so many of our friends and neighbors. If nothing else, what the election results tell us is that the choice to ignore the divisions and deep anguish in our society is no longer acceptable. We have become not one Christianity but many – with one – the one to which I feel I cannot belong – claiming sole ownership of the phrase, “under God.” Evangelical leader Franklin Graham went so far as to say that, “at this election, God showed up.”
Such a statement seems completely inconsistent with the words of today’s Hebrew scripture, “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes will burn them up.” For many of us, it seems that the opposite has happened – that we have been surrounded by arrogance -and it is difficult to imagine that so many could be so confused about how this divisive electoral battle was about upholding Christian values like loving our neighbor, judging not lest we be judged, and giving to those in need. And yet, the truth is that half of the people in this country different opinions – or they may have had the same opinion, but didn’t vote based on it. The thing is: we don’t know – not really. We can stare in dumbfounded desperation at editorials and exit polls, and still end up with only one sure conclusion: those of us who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ have become so divided that we do not recognize each other. We cannot imagine being able to live together, much less work together to bring the Kingdom of God to this suffering nation and the world.
It is the same situation the Thessalonians worried about in the first century of Christianity. In their case, they were having trouble living out the Christian ideal of sharing everything in common. “Why,” they complained, “should people who aren’t working for the community benefit from our labor”? They are “moochers. [They work] the system [instead of] the [working] a job.” Concerns about the fair distribution of goods can be found throughout Christian history – and in the campaign rhetoric of the 2016 election. This passage has been cited as the basis for what has been called, “The Protestant work ethic,” a deeply held American belief that being industrious is biblically mandated – that there is no free ride – and that people who need help drain the community of resources. It is one explanation for why some Christians vote to limit programs to assist those who – for a variety of reasons – have fewer concrete assets than others.
But this passage does not say that people who cannot work should not share in the fruits of the community; it says that the contributions of all members of a community are required for its survival – and that those contributions are not about meeting the needs of any individual, but rather what benefits the group as a whole. The evangelist’s condemnation is not for those who have limited resources to contribute; it is for those who have plentiful resources and fail to share them – and for those who are too busy sharing their opinions of others’ work to do their own.
Such “busybodies,” as the writer calls them, may “speak with great authority about things about which they have information that is limited or just plain wrong… [but they] are good at keeping things stirred up.” Commentator Neta Pringle sees their behavior – their unwillingness to work within a system they don’t like coupled with a willingness to take advantage of it – as a different kind of drain on community – one that capitalizes on natural human worries like fear of the unknown and perceived injustice to sow division instead of unity.
We cannot allow this. Because it is only by standing firm in our faith together that we can resist the powers that would destroy the sacrificial love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus the Christ that is at the core of our community. It is not enough to have individual faith; it is only by living out our faith in community – by working together- that we can withstand the onslaught of fear and hatred in our world.
That requires knowing who we are – knowing which Christianity we belong to – and talking about it. Much has been made of the decline of religious belief in our country. But if this election shows us anything, it is that people want to believe. They want to believe so much that they are willing to listen to whoever speaks the loudest, no matter how little sense they make – which is a problem if you belong to a denomination where we have never really learned to speak about our faith at all.
Today’s gospel makes it clear that we have to learn – and these election results present us with an opportunity to do it. In fact, these election results demand we do it. “Nation will rise up against nation…and there will be dreadful portents…they will arrest you and persecute you,” but you do not need to be afraid – because “this will give you an opportunity to testify” – the opportunity to figure out who we are and what we believe and to explain that to others – and God “will give [us] words and wisdom” to do it.
We have to look beyond our immediate pain and despair and see the possibilities that lie beneath the suffering in our community. We can no longer hide from the truth of the divisions among us. We can no longer pretend that we can do nothing in the face of them. And we cannot remain silent. We have been given the gift of salvation – of resurrection – and we have the chance to share it with others. That is a gift.
The truth is that there are always reasons to be afraid. There are always reasons to despair. There is always death. But Scripture tells us that we need not give in to that despair. We need not fear. Because there is also always life – and for those who are patient, for those who endure, for those who are brave, and for all those who will believe, that life is eternal. AMEN.
Lindsay Bever, (November 10, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Franklin Graham: ‘The Media didn’t understand the God-Factor in Trump’s Win,’” Washington Post online, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/10/franklin-graham-the-media-didnt-understand-the-god-factor/
Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11384). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation]. Kindle Edition.
Neta Pringle, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 Inclusive), (Kindle Location 11391). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation]. Kindle Edition.